Hawaii Web Tips

Copyright infringement, extortion and scams

I just want to say first, that I am a Photographer.  I majored in Photojournalism long before I became a web designer.  SO I am 100% for protecting our work online.  However, this latest trend of extortion needs to be discussed.  It disgusts me that there are photographers doing this as it only makes it harder for us to legitimately protect our work.

Copyright owners have begun cracking down on people using their work without license and suing for copyright infringement.

This is  largely due to the new Image tracking software like PicScout and www.tineye.com  which allows them to now search and find out who is using their image on  their website, blog or even social media accounts without permission.

This means, if you took an image from the web, even if you thought it was free, they can and will find you and you will have to pay.

If you have a website or blog, you are liable for ALL content on it regardless of whether you put it there or even knew about it.  That includes if you hired a web designer or allow users to post content!  If you are caught, and you will be caught,  you can be liable for paying damages.

What is copyright infringement?

Copyright infringement occurs when someone other than the copyright holder copies the “expression” of a work.

The most common defense to an infringement claim is “fair use,” which allows people to use copyrighted material without permission in certain situations.

To evaluate fair use of copyrighted material, the courts consider four factors:

  1. the purpose and character of the use
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work
  3. the amount and substantiality of copying, and
  4. the market effect.

(17 U.S.C. 107)

Copyright Extortion

As with everything on the web, there is always those who are working the system to make money. Now, there is a rise in what is called copyright extortion.   The technology is way ahead of people’s understanding of the issue,  and this has made a very lucrative opportunity for unethical Lawyers and copyright owners who are making a business model out collecting on infringement claims through “copyright extortion”.  Photographers seed the internet with their images by providing them to wall paper sites and royalty free sites.  Then they sit back and wait for people to start sing them and send out threatening demand letters wanting compensation that is excessive.  IN some cases, these people aren’t even the owners of the images.  They send out mass letters waiting for people who are scared and will just pay rather than get a lawyer.

I have received a letter.  Now what?

If you receive one of these notices its important you respond immediately and DO NOT IGNORE IT.  Remember there are legitimate claims so you don’t want to take the chance of ignoring a demand.

Read the letter carefully.  If you do have a license, simply respond with that information.  If you are not sure, just REMOVE the image until you can look into it.  If the letter is asking for compensation, make sure you are dealing with a legitimate request.  Ask for proof of copyright and validate the demand is legitimate.  Google the attornies name.  Check the USPTO database to see if they are in fact the legal owner.  Do some homework.  When in doubt simply ask the folks at http://www.extortionletterinfo.com/.  (be sure to donate if they help you!)

When you should be suspicious

If you are targeted by one of these firms or photographers, you will get a letter asking you to take the image down and to remit payment to avoid a law suit of $150, 000.  They are clear to say that removing the image is not enough that the photographer deserves compensation and even if you didn’t know, you are responsible and they are unwilling to accept reasonable offers.  Be prepared, these lawyers and photographer teams will be very insistent that you are a thief no matter if you knew or not, will not be reasonable and are not looking for a fair compensation based on how the image was used, where it was used, size, traffic to the site, how long it was up, etc.

This is why educating yourself is so important.  Are fines as much as $150,000.  YES!  But only if the person has a valid copyright and only if you knowingly infringed.  In a lot of cases people are innocent infringers and the court reduces fines to as low as $200 for innocent infringement.


  • Check out the photographers website, and see if they have terms of use, clearly marked and protected images, copyright notices on every page, etc. Although it is not required, it can give you a better case for innocent infringement. This can also be further proof that the photographer is intentionally making it easy for people to take his images.
  • Use www.tineye.com to search the image you in question to see who owns it and where it is being used.  If you see it available all over download sites in large format, this could be a red flag.  It is rare that people sharing an image on these sites without the photographers knowledge, would have access to large file sizes, large enough to print.
  • If you can prove you either weren’t the one who actually did it, for instance it was your webmaster OR if you can show that the image you downloaded is from one of those 3rd party sites (should be easy to show by the size and name of the image) then you are what is called an “innocent infringer” which means your infringment was NOT willful.  The new law reduces fines to innocent infringers.



Just because you find the image on free download sites does not mean the photographer was seeding the internet.  Although it is rare to find large format images on the internet,  IN some cases their image was stolen.  So again, go to the folks at ELI, this is a group of attorneys that have a forum where you can ask questions.   The community there is very helpful.

As a website owner, you are responsible for your website, and liable for damages BY LAW regardless of whether you knew about it.  The best way to avoid this situation is DO NOT TAKE IMAGES FROM THE WEB THAT YOU DON’T KNOW.  PERIOD.

What you are trying to show here is that you were not a willful infringer and to protect from people using these laws to extort money from you. The law is still not that great in this area, as many people do not know IP law and are not aware they are doing anything wrong and this law is giving dishonest people a way to make money.


  • If you provide images to your web designer, you must be sure you secure the proper permissions to use those images, it’s not the responsibility of the web designer to verify or research.  It is also important that you make sure your web designer provides you with licensed images and don’t be afraid to ask for proof.

This is not meant to replace legal advice.  Please consult an attorney.


Hawaii cases: http://www.extortionletterinfo.com/category/hawaiian-art-network/



How to avoid legal issues: http://www.zyra.info/getstu.htm

More on intentional extortion: http://turnkeypublisher.com/2011/06/27/beware-of-stock-photo-entrapment-extortion-scam/

4 replies
  1. copyrightextortion
    copyrightextortion says:

    Abuse of Copyrright Law by Copyright Trolls & Bullies

    There are two types of people in this world.

    1. Those who want to make money by protecting their work legally via copyrights

    2. Those who want to share everything freely, openly and without any type of restrictions

    I, myself belong to the latter type who loves to get educated (and educate others) via free research in libraries or web. If there’s any copyright which I’d want to display on anything I produce or work, it will go something like this;


    My reasoning is simple; For every free input, there should be a free output. However, not everyone will agree as they will come up with a gazillion reasons and logics to make money off of someone’s FREE and public domain information. These money-hogs actually use (or abuse) the copyright law to extort money out of an innocent and a totally naïve researcher via threats to sue in the court of law for the lack of licensing, a modern term of paying to use their information or media. This reminds me of a James Bond movie slogan “License to Kill”. Sometimes, too much law prohibits free spirit of innovation, research or movement of information across different mediums.

    To avoid such copyright trolls, you can always include the following information at the appropriate section of a web-page or a book;

    1. Title of the media or publication
    2. Author’s or Owner’s name
    3. Online Link Where found

    If you have modified their work in any way (provided their license allows you to do that or you got their permission via mail), you can add the word “DERIVATIVE” or “BASED UPON”.

    For example, you need an image of a squirrel in your website or a book. If you use online research tools, you’d see hundreds of images related to squirrel which are licensed by greedy individuals or organizations ready to sue you in the court of law unless you pay their license fee. To filter out such money-hogs, there’s a very useful online tool;


    Checkmark the “use for commercial purposes” and the “modify, adapt, or build upon” boxes. Select the appropriate website where you want to research (Be ware to avoid the ones mentioned below). And enter your search term “Squirrel”. Select the image to extract the reference information as mentioned above before using it.

    In the worst-case scenario, if you mistakenly (or innocently) used someone’s licensed work and they request you to take it down, you can request further information to prove they are the actual owners of that particular item. If they cooperate with you nicely and professionally by providing you with the maximum information possible (which is verifiable), you should honor their request to remove their copyrighted work immediately. Otherwise, there’s almost a quarter million dollars fine for using someone’s copyrighted or licensed work without their consent. However, If that individual or organization starts off by threatening to sue you instead of a nice request, you got a copyright troll on your hands.

    Unless they provide you all of the information (they may provide you part of it, but not all), simply ignore such threats. If such a troll happens to be an attorney, research about their respective bar association license number and file the complaint with the bar’s administration. You can also file the complaint in the respective State’s Attorney General’s office and FTC as well. Trollish attorneys are usually relentless and use all kinds of legal jargon to prove you as some sort of a criminal in their letters by assuming you are guilty of a deliberate and a willful violation of their client’s copyright or license.

    I used to hate the “IGNORE” word. But today, I love it. It pisses the hell out of copyright trolls who are so desperate for our money and attention. There should be a provision to “criminalize” such an abuse of copyright law by trollish organizations, individuals and attorneys. Let’s rally our own Congressmen and Congresswomen to introduce such “Anti-Bullying” and “Anti-Trollish” provisions to the copyright law.

  2. M
    M says:

    Hi there,

    I cam across your blog while looking for information to protect myself. I innocently used an image off of Google images and if there was information on the photographer I listed it in a pop up description. It was up for two days. This morning I was contacted by two different photographers saying they are pursuing legal action against me because I stole their images.
    This is too much of a coincidence to have 2 in one day contact me. I believe I am being targeted for the images on my blog and website.
    Please Help.


    • BOSS Hawaii
      BOSS Hawaii says:

      Can you provide more information? What kind of site do you have? And why 2 photographers, only 1 photographer can take a photo and claim ownership so that is strange. How were you contacted and what are they asking for?

  3. TSL
    TSL says:

    Thank you, I just posted a link to this information on my blog, it is a very serious matter, you have done well by your warnings!


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